An interesting musical study would be to compare the directions of Parlophone bands Radiohead and Blur. The latter’s last album, 13, was so obscure that some critics were writing the band off as past it and artsy-fartsy. Others, myself included, loved it not only for the experimentation but for the moods it engendered.
Radiohead are people of moods; usually muddled angsty moods. Since the release of debut album Pablo Honey they have been recording some of the most angst-ridden pieces of the modern indie/alternative era and doing quite nicely out of commercial success, tar very much. Their last album, OK Computer, marked a radical departure from guitar-engendered angst and instead concentrated on mood. It did however strike a balance with commerce, including as it did several immediately memorable tunes, rather like Blur’s 13 did.
Kid A moves us into unchartered territory. It seems that the band are hell-bent on being as ‘unpigeonholeable’ as possible, even declaring on their obscurantist website that they are “never knowingly understood”. As an image it works and is highly bankable – but Kid A fails to come up with a single tune with which to entice the record-buying public. With the possible exception of Blur, no other band would have got away with releasing an album so manifestly bereft of melody as this.
Parlophone clearly know this – they have one of the most marketable bands of the last 10 years on their hands who excel in doing random things. So it is that when Kid A is released, they are guaranteed huge sales whatever it sounds like.
What it does sound like on first listen, in certain places, is a cross between a Gregorian chant and whale music. Despite the obvious connotations of such a description, this does not mean to say that I don’t like the album. It is quite simply that they have done the near-impossible – produced a commercial success from nightmarish wails and guitar noises and stuck two fingers up at everyone. Thom Yorke’s voice still begs the listener to cry with every note and for all the right reasons – but we don’t hear that much of it. The title track features a lead vocoder rather than vocalist and drums that seem to have been pasted on from somewhere entirely random in origin. Plinky plonky keyboards here and there do nothing to pull the thing together but do lots for mood.
The claustrophobia of earlier Radiohead albums is not to be found on Kid A, for this is replaced by a feeling of space, even on The National Anthem, the most rhythmic track on the album.
Produced by man of the moment Nigel Godrich, this album has many things to recommend it. Radiohead are already becoming something rather unique; a cult commercial success. At the moment only Blur can stand on the same playing field – it will be interesting to see their next move. But pop fans should steer clear.